The State I Am In is the first of Christian Petzold’s cinema features and has also been identified as the first film of a trilogy which includes Gespenster (Ghosts, 2005) and Yella (2007). The film was written by Petzold and his former film school tutor Harun Faroki, who co-wrote five of Petzold’s features. The film’s story is very similar to that of the Sidney Lumet film Running on Empty (US 1988) but with the location changed to Europe. IMDb notes that the script by Naomi Foner for Running On Empty is not mentioned in the credits for The State I Am In.
The narrative begins in the Algarve where teenager Jeanne is living in an apartment block by the sea with her parents. The family have been ‘on the run’ since before Jeanne was born, wanted by the German Police and presumably through Interpol by other police forces across Europe. They have had to move several times and Jeanne is getting tired of the constant upheaval and the lack of opportunity to make long-term friends. She meets Heinrich, a young German, but before they can spend much time together, she and her parents must move again. This time the move is more urgent and the situation more desperate. They are forced to return to Germany to seek out old contacts in the hope of funding a final escape to Brazil.
The narrative combines elements of the thriller genre repertoire and the fugitives on the run with the youth picture/’coming of age’ story of Jeanne and Heinrich (who she will meet again in the familiar Petzold territory of the Elbe River area). We never discover what the parents, Clara and Hans actually did that caused them to flee. They are used to defending themselves and carrying a weapon and they are clearly well-educated and disciplined so they do appear to be political activists rather than criminals. Jeanne is experiencing an adolescence that is becoming frustrating since she is missing friendships and the chance to explore the pleasures of consumer capitalism – new clothes and music in particular. She must in a sense ‘work’ for her parents, shopping and running other errands to protect their identities. In return she is home-schooled. Ironically Jeanne will become a petty criminal because she can only acquire new clothes and CDs by shoplifting. This in turn increases her frustration.
I haven’t seen Gespenster, but placing Yella alongside The State I Am In does make sense. In both films a young(ish) German woman is at the centre of a narrative which seems to be allegorical with the woman representing a Germany that is struggling to find a new identity. In Yella, the struggle is about the inequalities of East and West after re-unification. In The State I Am In it is a struggle to get past the political divisions of the 1970s to 1990s in which various left organisations attacked the institutions of the West German state (and its personnel) through direct action. The state responded with anti-communist measures against leftist activists, instigating surveillance and reviving the Berufsverbot, an employment ban for public service posts first introduced in the 1930s. The only direct reference in the film is when Jeanne sneaks into a school screening of the Alan Resnais documentary Night and Fog (France 1956) about the Nazi death camps. The left action groups of the 1970s accused the West German government of a failure to confront the history of fascism in Germany.
The 1970s politics was also about the Vietnam War and the American military presence in Germany (the British and French military presence was seemingly less provocative?). The political discourses in West Germany were evident in some of the ‘New German Cinema’ films of the 1970s. Petzold doesn’t make obvious references to political struggles but he does use American culture in Germany as one of the elements that inspires Jeanne. The film begins with a scene in which Jeanne selects a song on a jukebox in a seaside café, Tim Hardin’s 1966 song ‘How Can We Hang On to a Dream’. This plaintive song might be read as a commentary on the film itself in the sense of a couple who try to keep their political convictions intact. The same song plays, non-diegetically, over the final credits. It’s earlier appearance is the background to Heinrich coming over to bum a cigarette off Jeanne in the café. He turns out to be a surfer with a poster for The Endless Summer (US 1965), the cult surfing documentary, in his room. He tells Jeanne that he is obsessed with Brian Wilson, the creative leader of The Beach Boys. I couldn’t help thinking of the early Wim Wenders movies from New German Cinema in which many characters play American music.
When Petzold made The State I Am In he had already completed some short films and two features made for TV. For his début cinema feature he had the support of his regular collaborators such as DoP Hans Fromm, film editor Bettina Böhler and music composer Stefan Will who have generally stayed with him over his career. The State I Am In doesn’t have the lustre of the recent films such as Undine (2020) but its pared down style matches the feel of its narrative. Petzold is well-served by his trio of lead actors with Julia Hummer as Jeanne, Barbara Auer as Clara and Richy Müller as Hans. The supporting roles, especially Bilge Bingul as Heinrich, are also strong. I enjoyed the film and I’m pleased to have seen it in the current MUBI season of Petzold films. I did see the Sidney Lumet film back in 1988 but I can’t remember it well enough to make a comparison. I just remember that it was River Phoenix who played the slightly older teenager.
Here is the opening of the film: